The Forgotten Story of Luther Burbank
By Dan Barker
This article originally ran in Freethought Today, August 1993
Luther Burbank was widely known as a botanist and scientist. His fame as an inventor of new fruits, plants and flowers inspired world-wide interest in plant breeding, for which he was recognized by an Act of Congress, among many other honors.
What was not widely known, until just before his death in 1926 at the age of 77, was that Luther Burbank was a freethinker. Those who had read his writings and attended his lectures on evolution knew that he was a "naturalist," in both the scientific and philosophical usages of the word; but the general public, loving him for his work as a gentle horticulturist, knew nothing of his iconoclastic opinions.
Burbank had always been frank about freethought with friends and colleagues. He had read the rationalist press, and was fond of E. Haldeman Julius's "Little Blue Books." Robert G. Ingersoll was one of his favorite writers: "I do not think there is a person in this world who has been a more ardent admirer of [Ingersoll] than I have been. His life and work have been an inspiration to the whole earth, shedding light in the dark places which so sadly needed light," Burbank wrote.
Until 1926, Burbank had preferred not to publicize his freethought views broadly, devoting his energies to the Burbank's Experiment Farms in Santa Rosa, California. But two events caused him finally to go public with his opinions of religion.
The first was the famous Scopes trial of 1925, the "monkey trial" that thrust evolution into the national spotlight. The fact that a high school teacher had been put on trial for teaching the "heresy" of Darwinism (which Burbank had been teaching, and practicing, for many years) "aroused him to a conviction that he ought to speak out, without mincing words, and declare for truth," according to biographer Wilbur Hall (The Harvest Of The Years, by Luther Burbank, with Wilbur Hall, 1927, Houghton Mifflin).
The second event was his friend Henry Ford's newly publicized views in favor of reincarnation. Edgar Waite, a reporter for the San Francisco Bulletin, interviewed Burbank about his reaction to Ford's ideas and wrote a front-page story appearing on January 22, 1926, with the headline: "I'm an Infidel, Declares Burbank, Casting Doubt on Soul Immortality Theory."
In the article, which was reprinted around the world, Burbank expressed his doubts about an afterlife: "A theory of personal resurrection or reincarnation of the individual is untenable when we but pause to consider the magnitude of the idea.
"On the contrary, I must believe that rather than the survival of all, we must look for survival only in the spirit of the good we have done in passing through. This is as feasible and credible as Henry Ford's own practice of discarding the old models of his automobile.
"Once obsolete, an automobile is thrown to the scrap heap. Once here and gone, the human life has likewise served its purpose. If it has been a good life, it has been sufficient. There is no need for another."
"But as a scientist," Burbank continued, "I can not help feeling that all religions are on a tottering foundation. None is perfect or inspired."
"The idea that a good God would send people to a burning hell is utterly damnable to me. I don't want to have anything to do with such a God."
But the phrase that caused the most consternation among believers was, "I am an infidel today.
"I do not believe what has been served to me to believe. I am a doubter, a questioner, a skeptic. When it can be proved to me that there is immortality, that there is resurrection beyond the gates of death, then will I believe. Until then, no."
This story was a bombshell, creating shock waves around the world. "A whirlwind of hatred engulfed him within twenty-four hours," wrote biographer Hale, "tempered only by fluent and admiring congratulations from thousands and thousands of the thoughtful."
Burbank was inundated with thousands of letters--532 one day, according to Waite. The rationalist Joseph McCabe visited Burbank's home during that time and noticed "a pile of opened letters, ankle-deep, on the floor. 'Today's crop,' [Burbank] says. A smaller pile lies on the desk, and must be answered."
Most of the Christians, and many clergy, had hoped that Burbank had either been misquoted or that he had been thoughtless in choosing the word "infidel." But in a follow-up interview, Burbank indicated that he had checked with the dictionary. "I am an infidel," he insisted. "I know what an infidel is, and that's what I am."
This controversy was to be Burbank's last battle. Wilbur Hale, who was with him during those weeks, "saw him growing tired and harassed, not by the dispute or the vilification heaped on him by the regenerate, but by the physical task entailed. He tried to reply to all the letters, using mild but fearless good sense with those who attacked him, and amplifying his original statement for those who supported him."
". . . he was misled into believing that logic, kindliness, and reason could convince and help the bigoted."
"He fell sick. The sickness was fated to be his last.
"What killed Luther Burbank, at just that time and in just that abrupt and tragic fashion, was his baffled, yearning, desperate effort to make people understand. His desire to help them, to clarify their minds, and to induce them to substitute fact for hysteria drove him beyond his strength. He grew suddenly old attempting to make reasonable a people which had been unreasonable through twenty stiff-necked generations. . .
"He died, not a martyr to truth, but a victim of the fatuity of blasting dogged falsehood."
Burbank In His Own Words
"The clear light of science teaches us that we must be our own saviors, if we are to be found worth saving."
"Science, unlike theology, never leads to insanity."
"Science . . . has opened our eyes to the vastness of the universe and given us light, truth and freedom from fear where once was darkness, ignorance and superstition. There is no personal salvation, except through science."
"The scientist is a lover of truth for the very love of truth itself, wherever it may lead."
"I believe in the immortality of influence."
"Feelings are all right, if one does not get drunk on them. Prayer may be elevating if combined with works, and they who labor with head, hands or feet have faith and are generally quite sure of an immediate and favorable reply."
"The chief trouble with religion has been too much dependence upon names or words. People fail to discriminate. They do not think. Generally people who think for themselves, instead of thinking according to the rules laid down by others, are considered unfaithful to the established order. In that respect I, too, differ with the established order and established designations."
"What is the use of assuring Fundamentalists that science is compatible with religion. They retort at once, "Certainly not with our religion."
"[Burbank's 'religion']: Justice, love, truth, peace and harmony, a serene unity with science and the laws of the universe."
"Those who would legislate against the teaching of evolution should also legislate against gravity, electricity and the unreasonable velocity of light, and also should introduce a clause to prevent the use of the telescope, the microscope and the spectroscope or any other instrument . . . used for the discovery of truth."
"Bryan--a great friend of mine, by the way--had a Neanderthal type of head."
"And to think of this great country in danger of being dominated by people ignorant enough to take a few ancient Babylonian legends as the canons of modern culture. Our scientific men are paying for their failure to speak out earlier. There is no use now talking evolution to these people. Their ears are stuffed with Genesis."
[From Why I Am An Infidel, published in Little Blue Book #1020 and from The Harvest Of The Years, by Luther Burbank with Wilbur Hale.]
Address at the Memorial Service for Luther Burbank
By Judge Ben Lindsey
The following is excerpted from Judge Lindsey's address at the grave of Luther Burbank at Doyle Park, Santa Rosa, California, Wednesday afternoon, April 14, 1926.
Judge Lindsey, of Denver, Colorado, had been asked by Burbank to speak on the occasion of his passing. He had to "rush like mad" to catch the first train to California. An estimated crowd of 10,000 people attended the ceremony, including a few clergy members. According to Maynard Shipley, who was at the event, "several Roman Catholic priests were seen in the audience," but "several of them left the open-air services in Doyle Park, offended in their narrow dogmatism by Lindsey's ringing challenges."
It was seventy-seven years ago in the little town of Lancaster, Massachusetts, that a spark of energy from the cosmic sea found lodgement in his covering of clay. It functioned in his gentle body with a creative genius such as this planet has seldom known. The fanatical, intolerant orthodoxy of a darker age would have regarded his creations as an impertinent interference with the "laws of God," and his services would have ended in the fires of the stake. But we have advanced on the road of progress and now he is to be forever known as one of the world's greatest benefactors. In the creative improvement of plant life, he is our greatest genius.
. . . It is impossible to estimate the wealth he has created. It has been generously given to the world. Unlike inventors, in other fields, no patent rights were given him, nor did he seek a monopoly in what he created. Had that been the case, Luther Burbank would have been perhaps the world's richest man. But the world is richer because of him. In this he found joy that no amount of money could give.
And so we meet him here today, not in death, but in the only immortal life we positively know--his good deeds, his kindly, simple, sinless life of constructive work and loving service to the whole wide world.
These things cannot die. They are cumulative, and the work he has done shall be as nothing to its continuation in the only immortality this brave, unselfish man ever sought, or asked to know.
And now he passes with the Everlasting Change, as the bravest of the brave, the tenderest, loveliest flower in all the gardens of the world.
Here he worked and wrought his marvels with the trees, the vines, the fruits, the grains, and flowers, not forgetting any other living thing. To the birds he gave a new earth, and to the dogs and all such creatures, a new friendship and understanding--all as a part of the embracing kinship of all life. And as the sweetest of all that in the garden grew, he classed a little child as blood brother to the rose. As the great scientist, rather than the poet that he was, he was the first to speak so beautifully of a child as only another plant--a human plant. To him as to few other men it was given to know, that all comes from the same universal ebb and flow of protoplasmic energy. At once the child of this earth, he was one of the chosen few to give the mighty thrust to send this whirling orb ten thousand years nearer the kingdom of happiness on earth. With that Heaven, here and now, like the unselfish, humble heart that struggled to the end, he was content.
Beyond the change that we call death, but which to him was ever a part of life, since "life" and "change" were to him identical, he neither asked nor sought a place by the stupidly gorgeous gates of pearl in the hazy heaven of the pathetic childhood of the race--a race as yet with half opened eyes, still in its swaddling clothes, though born of millions of years of change, with millions of years yet to go.
He was ever young. So live a spark of the eternal force--life--from whence he came is never dimmed by time. And then, he loved. And lovers mature, but never age. "I love everybody," he said, "I love everything! I love humanity--I love flowers--I love children--I love my dog--I am a lover of the man Jesus--I am a lover of all things that help." With such perfect love he was too fine and brave to be orthodox.
And so in the face of the misunderstandings of the ignorant, and the revilings of the malicious, he dared to say he was what he was, as the light of life had given him the courage to see and say.
Though his spirit was as sweet as the gentlest zephyr that ever kissed favorite roses, it did not save him from the bigotry of an age still idolatrous, still savage in its intolerance. Beneath its veneer of hypocrisy, called civilization, a big part of humanity still resents the right of men to think, to express their honest views about life and death. But, if any think they have crucified this man, they are mistaken. Their maledictions passed him by as the idle wind. He was defending the rights of man as against the mists of dogma with its brutal mythical tyrant that some yet call God--the Moloch who consigned innocent, little unbaptized children to a fiery hell, or to utter darkness, or who burns the creatures that he has made, knowing when he made them that they were made to burn.
. . . With the bravery of a lion and the courage of the great martyrs of history, into the faces of those of the intolerant clergy he flung his challenge, bold and clear, "I nominate myself as an infidel, as a challenge to thought for those who are asleep." Thus nature's gardener was doing in the garden of human plants what he has done so well in the garden of fruits and flowers. For in no other way could so much good have been done by one man in so short a time. That garden needs watering; it needs better tending; it needs to be relieved from the choking weeds of the past. In time, by all but fanatics, he will be thanked for startling people into thought.
. . . As great as were his contributions to the material wealth of this planet, the ages yet to come, that shall better understand him, will give first place in judging the importance of his work to what he has done for the betterment of human plants and the strength they shall gain, through his courage, to conquer the tares, the thistles and the weeds. Then no more shall we have a mythical God that smells of brimstone and fire; that confuses hate with love; a God that binds up the minds of little children, as other heathen bind up their feet--little children equally helpless to defend their precious right to think and choose and not be chained from the dawn of childhood to the dogmas of the dead.
Luther Burbank will rank with the great leaders who have driven heathenish gods back into darkness, forever from this earth. And all that he spoke was but the awe in which he stood before a great unknown force, and his courage was but the reverence in which he held this great unseen.
. . . Luther Burbank had a philosophy that actually works for human betterment, that dares to challenge the superstition, hypocrisy, and sham, which so often have worked for cruelties, inquisitions, wars and massacres. Superstition that stood across the road of Progress, commanded, not by a god or gods, but the meanest devils that we know--Ignorance, Intolerance, Bigotry, Fanaticism, and Hate. The prejudiced beneficiaries of organized theology refused to see what Burbank, the gifted child of Nature, saw with a vision as crystal as theirs is dense and dark. And so they assailed him.
One of the saddest spectacles of our times is the effort of hidebound theologians, still desperately trying to chain us to the past--in other forms that would still invoke the inquisitions, the fears, and the bigotries of the dark ages, and keep the world in chains. The chains of lies, hypocrisies, taboos, and the superstitions, fostered by the dying, but still the organized, relentless outworn theology of another age. They refuse to see that in their stupid lust for power they are endangering all that is good.
Little children will be taught to know that evil could no more blossom from this lovely human plant than the thistles could spring from the creations of his gardens. And so this fearless heart has brought us nearer the day when Youth will kindle other flames than those of avenging Gods--flames that shall consume alone the superstitions, fears, hates, and threats that held their minds in chains. For had he not said "CHILDREN ARE THE GREATEST SUFFERERS FROM OUTGROWN THEOLOGIES"?
And now, with his kindly help to their right to think, they will win in the mighty rebellion of modern Youth that is the glory of our time. They then will better know the good as well as the evil, the true as well as the false, the superstition and the savagery, the wisdom and the folly of the religion of their father. They will read its books with unfettered, open minds, with the precious right to think, to disbelieve as well as to believe, to reject as well as to accept, as the light of a scientific age shall illuminate and reveal. Reason and love shall then have unhampered flow, as like sparkling waters of life, from human plants set free by the Burbanks of the battling hosts of science against the dogmas of the dark in the Armageddon of our time.
. . . In the orthodox threat of eternal punishment for sin--which he knew was often synonymous with yielding up all liberty and freedom--and in its promise of an immortality, often held out for the sacrifice of all that was dear to life, the right to think, the right to one's mind, the right to choose, he saw nothing but cowardice. He shrank from such ways of thought as a flower from the icy blasts of death. As shown by his work in life, contributing billions of wealth to humanity, with no more return than the maintenance of his own breadline, he was too humble, too unselfish, to be cajoled with dogmatic promises of rewards as a sort of heavenly bribe for righteous conduct here. And by the threats of hell he was too wise and brave to shape the conduct of his life. He knew that the man who fearlessly stands for the right, regardless of the "threat of punishment" or the "promise of reward," was the real man. . .
Rather was he willing to accept eternal sleep, or whatever mystic change might bring, in returning to the elements from whence he came, for in his lexicon "change" was "life." Here he was content to mingle as a part of the whole, as the raindrop from the sea performs its sacred service in watering the land to which it is assigned, that two blades may grow instead of one, and then, its mission ended, goes back to the bosom of the ocean from whence it came. With such service, with such a life as gardener to the lilies of the field, not forgetting the minds of the little children there, in his return to the bosoms of infinity, he has not lost himself. There he has found himself, is a part of the cosmic sea of eternal force, eternal energy. And thus he lived and always will live.
And you, his faithful wife, and neighbors, here in this lovely city, nestling in gardens of fruit and flowers, closest to the real miracle-maker that he was, shall know that he is not dead. While you will miss his kindly smile and the radiant presence of his personality, as the flesh-colored, ever genial, spark of life that you could see--still, unseen, he walks in our midst, in his work.
Thomas Edison, who believes very much as Luther Burbank, once discussed with me immortality. He pointed to the electric light, his invention, saying: "There lives Tom Edison." So Luther Burbank lives. He lives forever in the myriad fields of strengthened grain, in the new forms of fruits and flowers, and plants, and vines, and trees, and above all, the newly watered gardens of the human mind, from whence shall spring human freedom that shall drive out false and brutal gods. The gods are toppling from their thrones. They go before the laughter and the joy of the new childhood of the race, unshackled and unafraid.